A Carbon Conundrum
Last year, Americans drove almost three trillion miles according to estimates from the U.S. Federal Highway Administration.
That’s a lot of time on the open road, time stuck in traffic jams, and time for carbon emissions to enter our atmosphere.
How much carbon?
12,000 mile average per year per passenger vehicle (cars, minivans, pick-ups, vans and SUVs) ÷ 25.5 average miles per gallon
= 470.6 average gallons per year
× 17.68 average pounds of CO2 per gallon of gas
= 8,320 pounds of CO2 per vehicle per year[i]
So more than four tons of new greenhouse gas are floating around our atmosphere each year for every car on the road!
Scary! But, we have good news: an average tree planted through American Forests’ Global ReLeaf program absorbs about 910 pounds of CO2. So just nine of these hard workers can help offset the average emissions for your car for a year.
Now, let’s say that your car has a long, trouble-free life and makes it to the 12-13 year life average that’s reported by the U.S. Department of Transportation. That means 110-120 trees are needed to absorb the carbon emissions for your car’s life.
Don’t have enough space in your yard to support more than 100 trees? Again, we have good news. American Forests is a proud partner in this year’s Subaru “Share the Love” event in which individuals buying or leasing a new Subaru can designate $250 to one of five charities. If participants select American Forests as their charity, $250 means 200 trees will be planted — more than enough to cover the carbon emissions for the car’s lifespan!
Carbon is the basis of life on Earth. All living organisms are composed of carbon — even humans. It’s in the rocks, in the ocean, in the plants, in the atmosphere. The movement of carbon through all of these different elements is referred to as the carbon cycle. It can take from as little as one year for carbon to cycle in annual plants to billions of years for some rocks—or precious stones such as diamonds. This natural cycle has functioned successfully for millennia to maintain a balance in Earth’s carbon levels, but all of that changed with the Industrial Revolution.
In the 1700s and 1800s, with the advent of modern engines and energy technologies, we began altering the natural carbon cycle, releasing more greenhouse gases, including CO2, into the air through the burning of fossil fuels, as well as through clearing forests for agriculture and harvesting trees for development. The concentration of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere has increased by more than 35 percent since the pre-Industrial Revolution days. It is higher today than at any time in at least 650,000 years, and the increase is almost all due to human activity.
Greenhouse gases are a natural part of our atmosphere, but not at their current levels. One important function of greenhouse gases is that they trap heat in the atmosphere. We need that heat to prevent the planet from being covered by a sheet of ice (remember the ice ages?), but too much greenhouse gas can result in a much warmer planet, which will have serious global and regional impacts on natural ecosystems and human populations, such as increasing coastal flooding, droughts, wildfires, intense storms and the spread of disease. If you want an extreme example of what greenhouse gas can do, take a look at Venus. Venus’ atmosphere is more than 95 percent CO2, leaving the planet with a surface temperature of a balmy 860-plus degrees Fahrenheit — it’s much, much hotter than Mercury despite being farther from the sun.
So, what do we do? For starters, we protect our trees and forests. It’s well known that trees act as carbon sinks, or basically storage vaults, absorbing carbon from the air for use in photosynthesis and accumulating it in their limbs, trunks and roots, as well as in the organic matter of the soils that trees help to build. But scientists are discovering that forests may be even better sinks in the coming years than was originally thought. According to a recent report by a team of University of Michigan researchers, in the immediate future, forests will be able to consume more carbon than had been previously estimated and help remove additional greenhouse gases from the air.
Our trees and forests are doing their best to help us, so let’s help them. Let’s protect them from unwarranted clearing and cutting, as well as from threatening diseases and insects; let’s replant areas damaged by fire and other disturbances; let’s build a greener world. “Share the Love” and support American Forests’ mission to protect and restore our trees and forests.
If you’re not in the market for a new Subaru but want to explore ways to offset the carbon emissions from the cars you drive, please consider planting trees through our Global ReLeaf program. Together, we can improve the health of our planet.
[i] Curious about these figures? Visit our Carbon Calculator’s Assumptions and Sources page.